After years of occupation by the so-called Islamic State (Da’esh) the city of Mosul, Iraq is on the verge of being liberated. The urban battle there has raged for almost nine months leaving a devastating humanitarian disaster in its wake. The weapons which were used during this battle have a direct impact on what comes next for the city and its inhabitants.
Although the Iraqi Prime Minister has declared victory and the city liberated, the humanitarian suffering will continue for years or more likely decades due to the indiscriminate and inhumane weapons used.
The weapons used and their impact
For a number of years, civil society under the International Network on Explosive Weapons and a number of states have been concerned about the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. During the battle for Mosul, INEW expressed great concern about the weapons being used and encouraged all actors to cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects in the densely populated city. Despite these calls for restraint, populated areas of Mosul and especially west Mosul have seen the use of airdropped munitions, unguided bombs, multiple launch rocket systems, mortars, other shelling, and improvised explosive devices including car bombs for months.
The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in a densely populated city results in high levels of civilian casualties. Mosul has seen this assertion to be true over the past nine months. Airwars, a civil society monitoring organization, estimated that as of July 1, 2017 between 900 and 1,200 civilians were killed by Coalition airstrikes or artillery in Mosul. That number does not include civilians killed when there was uncertainty about the user of the explosive weapon (International Coalition, Iraqi security forces or Da’esh) or casualty reports which could not be verified. The casualty toll from Da’esh’s use of explosive weapons and improvised explosive devices is expected to be quite high. The United Nations reports that in a three day period in March 2017, at least 95 civilians were killed in four neighbourhoods of western Mosul alone by Da’esh explosive weapons and snipers.
These numbers of civilians killed only show a small glimpse of the suffering caused by the explosive weapons with wide area effects used in Mosul. For each person killed, many more have been injured. The ICRC reported that their surgical team at Mosul General Hospital has received over 650 cases, many of them children. Hospitals in the area have been overwhelmed with the injured during the battle.
Those who are injured may need ongoing care to deal with their injuries and any resulting impairments. Rehabilitative services, prosthetics, mobility aids and psychological support will all be needed to ensure that those injured can participate in society fully.
Beyond immediate casualties the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in Mosul has resulted in extensive destruction of key infrastructure, housing and other buildings greatly compounding the ongoing humanitarian suffering.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reports that water treatment plants and pumping stations in both eastern and western Mosul were damaged. Of the damaged facilities, nine are under rehabilitation in July 2017, however, ongoing insecurity and a lack of funding has inhibited rehabilitation. Water is currently being trucked into Mosul. Related to the damage done to the water supply is the destruction of sanitation infrastructure. In addition, the electrical grid has been seriously disrupted, waste disposal operations have been halted for months on end and schools, medical facilities and religious or cultural buildings were destroyed. All of these results of explosive weapons use have humanitarian consequences now and will make it much harder and costlier to rebuild a thriving city in the future.
UNOCHA reported that out of west Mosul’s 54 residential neighbourhoods, 38 are heavily to moderately damaged. The damage and fighting combined with the draconian rule of Da’esh has resulted in over half a million people being displaced from in and around Mosul. Studies conducted in similar situations around the region have shown that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a key driver of displacement and the ICRC gathered a number of reports from displaced persons from Mosul who stated they fled the city due to explosive weapons use. For many, return will be impossible until rubble has been cleared and reconstruction has been begun.
Not every explosive weapon used in the battle for Mosul functioned properly, especially considering the number of homemade mortars. These explosive remnants of war will need to be cleared before reconstruction and return of displaced persons can begin in earnest.
In addition to the explosive remnants of war, Da’esh has been using improvised landmines, booby traps and other victim activated weapons extensively to continue killing after they have retreated. In one village near Mosul, improvised mines have already killed ten and injured five. High levels of contamination are being reported across the region in areas liberated from Da’esh and Mosul is no exception. The improvised mines left by Da’esh aim to prevent civilian return to Mosul and surrounding villages.
Mines are being found surrounding essential infrastructure, schools and other public buildings further impeding reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. Booby traps contaminate residential homes waiting in mattresses, kitchen sinks, doorways and other ordinary items for the residents to return. The contamination will take years to clear. Mines Advisory Group calls the situation in areas liberated from Da’esh a new landmine emergency, noting that the improvised mines created by Da’esh are often sensitive enough to be triggered by a child but packed with enough explosive to destroy a tank.
There is little doubt that significant work needs to be done to rebuild Mosul after the nine months of conflict and years of Da’esh rule. Iraqi officials estimate that recovery and complete reconstruction will cost billions of dollars.
The weapons used during the conflict in many ways dictate the next steps towards reconstruction. Of prime importance is rehabilitating water and sanitation facilities as well as the electrical grid. In terms of saving lives and limbs, the clearance of mines and ERW must be a priority. The presences of ERW and improvised mines will hamper reconstruction by making clearing rubble and navigating the city a very risky endeavor. Humanitarian demining organizations are on the ground outside the city and armed forces explosive ordnance disposal teams are also working hard to remove the mines and ERW. However, this is a task that will take many months or years. Without clearance, travel, shopping, attending school and other aspects of everyday activities will be life-threatening. Once this work is done, the city and surrounding countryside can return to a thriving community.
In the meantime, risk education will be needed to protect civilians still living in Mosul and those who may return. Risk education can show residents what common dangerous objects look like and warning signs will remind citizens to be on the alert. For communities that have never been contaminated with mines and ERW before risk education is crucially important. Such activities are already underway and will need to be expanded to populations who were recently liberated from Da’esh.
The destruction of buildings through explosive weapons use has resulted in significant amounts of rubble littering neighbourhoods across Mosul which will need to be cleared before reconstruction can begin in earnest. The rubble poses a threat to the health of residents as well as an impediment to reconstruction. Rubble may contain harmful chemicals while the long term inhalation of dust may impact breathing; these impacts will be magnified if industrial areas and infrastructure was targeted. Environmental remediation will have to be included in the recovery plans to ensure that the city remains a healthy place to live.
At the moment, reports indicate that not only is there significant amounts of rubble in West Mosul, but that the bodies of those killed in the bombing and shelling are still buried under the rubble. Collection of human remains and proper burial is needed to be able to start clearing the rubble and to allow family members and friends to grieve.
Once the deceased have been properly cared for and the rubble cleared, basic infrastructure will need to be repaired or rebuilt. Displaced persons will need to have access to water, sanitation and electricity prior to return. The destruction of Mosul is extensive as discussed above. Water, sanitation and electricity infrastructure have been severely damaged, schools and hospitals have been destroyed and roads are clogged with rubble. The rehabilitation of destroyed infrastructure has already begun but the process will be long. Standing buildings will need to be assessed for structural safety, as well as, for improvised mines, booby traps and other ERW. Partially destroyed buildings will need to be repaired following assessments. Destroyed buildings will need to have the rubble cleared away and the buildings rebuilt. In addition to essential infrastructure, houses, schools, hospitals, mosques, churches and markets will need to be rebuilt. Entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed and will need extensive reconstruction to make them thriving communities again. This will be a long and costly process, but the city will need to be rebuilt in order for the citizens to be able to return and begin to re-establish their lives.
For those who lived through the conflict, re-establishing their lives will require more than just rebuilding the city and its infrastructure. As mentioned above, ensuring proper support and services to those injured by explosive weapons will be a major undertaking for the foreseeable future. Medical care, rehabilitation, mobility aids, assistance with social and economic reintegration and psychosocial support will all be needed. To provide services to the large number of injured, there will need to be a large increase in the availability of age and gender sensitive services. Under the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Iraq has an obligation to provide assistance to victims of those weapons. The principle of non-discrimination in victim assistance under those two treaties would likewise require the provision of services to citizens with similar needs regardless of the cause of those injuries. Those who were not injured but have lived under the bombing and shelling for months may require mental health care as well.
One consideration that is not entirely unique to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, but is greatly exacerbated by their use is the fate of unaccompanied children. Families get separated in armed conflict. The Red Cross/Red Crescent and other organizations have worked to reunite families in conflicts for decades. More than just getting lost in the chaos of fleeing conflict, UNICEF reports that a number of medical facilities have received injured or traumatized children who are alone and remain unclaimed. Often they are the sole survivor of a bombing or airstrike that destroyed their family’s home. The explosive weapons used in Mosul would frequently collapse an entire home or building on those inside, especially in the Old City, killing large numbers of the same family. This family destruction was intensified by the use of civilians as human shields by Da’esh which forced extended families to shelter together. Some of these unaccompanied children may be in the care of UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations but that is a temporary solution. These children will need to be reunited with surviving extended family or placed in safe and loving foster or adoptive homes to give them the best possible chance to recover from this trauma and become productive members of society.
All of this reconstruction work requires strong social cohesion and civil society. Years of displacement or occupation coupled with the long battle have weakened social ties as is evident by the extra-judicial retribution currently going on in Mosul. If the goal is to rebuild the city and defeat Da’esh work needs to be done on countering the damage done to the culture of the city, as well as, the buildings and people. Citizens are beginning this work already by bringing back music and cultural activities and that work should be supported. Civil society organizations should also be supported especially networks and peer support groups for survivors of explosive weapons use. We know from work on landmines and cluster munitions that peer support is key to adapting to new impairments caused by weapons injuries in terms of physical, psychological and economic recovery. It will also be crucially important to ensure that women and marginalized communities have a seat at the table while decisions are made about rebuilding the city. Iraqi officials and others must make sure these populations are included in the reconstruction process. In addition to supporting the physical rebuilding of the city, donors such as Canada should be supporting grassroots organizations to build their capacity to provide services in Mosul and to reconstruct society.
Moslawis experienced years of occupation by an inhumane terrorist organization and then suffered immensely during the battle to liberate the city from Da’esh. Much of this suffering was caused by the tactics used during the battle and the behavior of actors in the conflict, but the weapons used will determine what comes next for the city. The city cannot rebuild without dealing with the legacy of the weapons used and the ways in which the weapons have harmed and continue to harm the civilian population.
 This article deals solely with the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. There are a number of reports of humanitarian harm and extra-judicial killings taking place in areas liberated from Da’esh. These reports are concerning; they should be investigated thoroughly and perpetrators brought to justice.